Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Regime in Riyadh and Global Terror

To judge from the response of world leaders, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, who passed away last week, was one of the world’s finest democrats.  The British Prime Minister, the French President, and the American Vice-President are heading to commemorative ceremonies.  Politicians across the political spectrum in the U.S.—Joe Biden, John McCain, John Kerry—offered fulsome praise for the Saudi leader.
But as Murtaza Hussain pointed out, to remember King Abdullah as a “vocal advocate for peace”, “a man of wisdom and vision”, and as a leader worthy of such praise, is to cruelly distort reality.  Hussain reminded readers that Abdullah was a monarch, not a democrat, who “ruled as an absolute monarch of a country which protected American interests, but also sowed strife and extremism throughout the Middle East and the world”.
“It’s not often”, Hussain wrote, “that the unelected leader of a country which publicly flogs dissidents and beheads people for sorcery wins such glowing praise from American officials”.
At the same time that world leaders condemned the brutal murder of French journalists in Paris, and the attack on freedom of expression that it represented, the same leaders remained comparatively mute when the Saudi regime savagely flogged a blogger who offended the country’s autocrats.  It was left to civil society and human rights groups to point out the hypocrisy of the world’s approach to the regime in Riyadh. 
In seeking to understand the persistence of non-state terrorism, and its fluorescence in the Middle East, the flocking of world leaders to the capital of this morally-moribund monarchy is of some use. 
The Saudi regime stands for everything our own country was founded in reaction against.  It is a despotic monarchy.  Its citizens have no representation.  Large numbers of those citizens have few if any rights or protections, and suffer from grievous discrimination.  It suppresses statistics about the poverty of its subjects.  Those citizens suffer from arbitrary arrests and a justice system conspicuous for the absence of real justice.  Sectors of the economy rely on imported labourers who function like indentured servants. 
This is a style of rule calculated to breed righteous dissent and frustration, and if the regime refuses to yield to such dissent, the inevitable result is some form of armed resistance or terrorism directed in this case not only at the state, but also at its powerful international clients and protectors who prop it up and shed waterfalls of tears at the death of an iron-fisted dictator while remaining studiously dry-eyed at the plight of his beleaguered subjects.
So long as regimes like the one in Riyadh survive, the leaders of non-state terrorist organizations—whose have their own aims and ambitions—will have no difficulty in securing recruits who feel that they have no other hopes and no other options.  The Saudi regime and others like it create the desperation, inequality, cynicism, and violence that have generated the waves of violence that rock so much fo the world today.

It is not only Saudi subjects who suffer from this travesty of a government.  During the Arab Spring, with the support of neocons like Hillary Clinton, the Saudi regime not only squeezed the life out of internal pro-democracy protests, but deployed military force to crush democratic uprisings in neighbouring Bahrain. 
And the noxious regime has a corrosive effect on all who come in contact with it.  BAE, a British arms company, was accused of corruption over the infamous Al-Yamamah arms sale to Saudi Arabia.  While the company was forced to pay nearly half a billion in fines in U.S. courts for corruption, the Saudi government blackmailed the British government, bringing to a halt the investigation by the Serious Fraud Office into the company when the regime threatened to cut off intelligence sharing with the Blair government.
At the end of the day it is perhaps fitting that state terrorists in the United States—who have waged wars of aggression and launched depraved campaigns of torture, abduction, and murder—would find common cause with the state terrorists in Saudi Arabia, who rule as monarchs and use violence and brutality to keep their subjects quiescent.

But our public should not be complicit in this toxic relationship, and we should demand that our leadership not only reform its own illegal and immoral activities, but that it divorce itself from association with undemocratic regimes the world over, instead of selling them arms and rubbing shoulders at every opportunity.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Elizabeth Warren Must Crash the Clinton Coronation Party and Run for the Presidency

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The media has a new obsession these days.  Elizabeth Warren. 
Or more precisely, the effect of Elizabeth Warren on Hillary Clinton, the presumptive nominee from the Democratic Party.  The emerging conventional wisdom is that the mere presence of Elizabeth Warren in the Senate is far more serious or influential than the Massachusetts lawmaker would be in a presidential primary or in the Oval Office.  The emerging conventional wisdom—which might have been written in wherever Hillary Clinton’s non-campaign headquarters are—is that Warren is forcing Clinton to change her rhetoric and move to the left during the primary that establishment Democrats desperately hope will be no kind of primary at all.  This is a chain of events Clintons backers and hangers-on are willing to countenance because they know that precious little their candidate says during a primary will matter when the neoliberal, neoconservative Clinton gets down to governing.
Serious journalists might pick up on this and ask, given the expertise with which both Clinton’s triangulate and contort to fit a given audience, why it matters what Clinton says during a presidential primary when everything we’ve seen of her in and out of government suggests that she is firmly committed to the neoconservative, neoliberal consensus which keeps our country mired in imperial wars and our citizens stripped of the protections which succor the lives of citizens in most other democracies in the world today. 
But the hacks who populate the pages of too many papers and news sites in the United States treat politics as a parlour game instead of an earnest moral endeavor that has the capacity to transform for better or worse the fortunes of hundreds of millions of people.  Certainly, changes in Clinton’s rhetoric show the influence of people like Elizabeth Warren.  But what matters at the end of the day is whom Clinton would owe when she entered the White House, and the kinds of interests that have shaped her thinking and political actions—not words—down the decades.
Imagine the spectacle of Hillary Clinton facing off against Mitt Romney in a presidential race.  Two of the fattest felines in politics, both with a history of support for trickle-down economics, purring about who cares about inequality and poverty the most while taking checks from people committed to enshrining corporate power and the plutocracy that goes along with it.
Such a contest is the surest way imaginable to kill our democracy.  In part because the policies that would emerge from whatever administration such a contest produced would continue to prize capital over labour and the rights of corporate titans over those of working class citizens.  But also because it would represent the ultimate ascendance of moneyed, dynastic politics in our elections, and the failure of our system to present the electorate with more than the slimmest slice of the ideological and policy options available to us.  Such an election would leave us disenchanted and ultimately dangerous.
Warren offers a more progressive version of politics, one committed to using government for good rather than ill.  A Warren presidency, with its unabashed populism could prove transformative.  In stark contrast to the muddling centrism of the Obama and Clinton administration—packed to the gills with representatives of a stultifying, corrupting conventional wisdom—it would offer a clear and transformative vision rather than half-hearted appeals to febrile moderation.
In the Senate, where the press corps and the Clinton cabal would like her to remain, Warren can influence the national conversation.  But it is impossible for a single Senator to drive the kind of policy changes necessary to create a humane social democracy, or to restore integrity to our democracy. 
In the White House, she could appoint justices, staff the cabinet, articulate a cohesive policy agenda, and be the single face against which the Republican Party—in all of its sociopathic fury—would have to justify its cruel absurdity.  Today Republican politicians can wrangle with a pack of contemptible right-wingers who maintain a hold on the real centers of power in the Democratic Party.  They can cast themselves against a passive, vision-less President whose faith in incrementalism dooms his best intentions when they are even distinguishable. 
Against Warren, they would be exposed for the corporate automatons they are, so much rabble purchased by the Koch Empire and its ilk, men and women who sign absurd oaths forswearing the use of their brains and pledging their allegiance to the 1%.
The last thing we need at this transformative economic moment are Wall Street’s Storm Troopers in Congress and the Presidency, whether through Clinton or Romney or Christie or Bush.
A quick look at changing technology alone should tell us that labour and labour relations in this country are on the cusp of dramatic changes.  Think about something like 3-D printing technology, which has the capacity to make workers and work as we know it obsolete on a dramatic scale.  It is extraordinary technology, but of introduced by those blindly enamoured of its transformative power, without regulation, without thought for its social context, it could be deadly.  Imagine if these changes in production were to occur in an environment in which workers are stripped of their security, their rights, and their political power…that would be beyond devastating for the fortunes of the middle class Warren seeks to protect even as the Clintons, Romneys, and Bushes of this world seek to un-do their remaining, fragile protections.
That’s just one example, along with the power of Wall Street, the enshrinement of corporate rights, and the absence of a social welfare system, that makes the election of progressive, social democratic, or socialist leadership imperative.  We need more than a primary-time conversation about justice and equality.  We need leadership that is prepared to take up, without compromise, the welfare of our citizenry.
Predictably, some commentators have argued that Warren’s focus on economic and social issues makes her unsuitable to be President absent any posturing over foreign policy.  But given how much blood and money the United States has shed in the past sixty years in imperialistic wars that have not been fought in the public interest, a little focus on the welfare of our public wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
Nor does a disinterest in breathless sabre-rattling have to mean isolationism.  A good presidential candidate would not be in the mold of the last ten or more occupants of the White House, who have been beguiled by blood and trumpets and a vision of American power that is both destructive and unjust.
What we need in a candidate when it comes to foreign policy is not expertise—our national security “experts” are most expert at getting things spectacularly wrong while mounting counter-productive and immoral cowboy stunt.  What we need is someone who can add two and two and come up with something other than twenty-seven.  And preferably someone whose sharp moral sense of what life in the United States should look like extends that vision of justice and equality abroad, as a counter to the violent colonial-style relationship that has hitherto characterized the approach of the U.S. to the world writ large.
The progressive, social democratic principles with which Warren approaches politics, her understanding of human actions and motives, and her prioritization of the rights and welfare of citizens over the corrosive aspirations of their would-be masters…these things have the capacity at least to translate into the most transformative foreign policy in our republic’s history.
In short, the country needs Warren—and other progressives, social democrats, and socialists—to step forward and actively seek positions of leadership.
Hillary Clinton never believed that her presence in the Senate would be more consequential than her presence in the White House.  Nor did Barack Obama.  So why should this frankly absurd argument apply to Elizabeth Warren who, more than either Clinton or Obama, would govern with purpose, moral clarity, and an animating ideology, the application of which has the potential to transform decades of dangerously undemocratic politics and re-focus the country on the welfare of the many rather than the unseemly enrichment of a few?

Warren, having articulated the possibility of a different kind of politics, owes it to the country to do everything she can to put that into practice…and that means seeking the Presidency.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Jerry Brown's Inaugural Pays Little Heed to Higher Education

California Governor Jerry Brown offered up what we can only hope to be his final inaugural address yesterday.  Now termed out as Governor, Brown claims to be focusing his energies on cementing his legacy in the Golden State, while assorted hacks urge him to take a tilt at a presidential campaign, where his serial irresponsibility and history of eviscerating the public sphere would certainly make him welcome in a Republican Party primary.

Brown´s inaugural took place against the backdrop of a dispute with the University of California, whose President and Regents are intent on raising tuition in the coming years to counteract the decades’ long bleeding of public funding.

Brown, who has cut funding for UC and historically attacked its expansive social and economic role in the state, is opposed to tuition hikes, content as he is to keep the university impoverished and diminished, on its way to privatization.  Privatization would suit the UC Regents well enough, but at the urging of President Janet Napolitano, and for form’s sake, the corporate board is shedding some crocodile tears over the plight of the students, onto whose backs they have piled untenable debt over the past years, all the while trying to monetize and instrumentalize an institution supposedly dedicated to seeking truths and bettering the human condition.

Brown devoted a paragraph of his inaugural address to California’s higher education system, the centerpiece of the vibrant public sphere his father sought to cultivate.  And he didn’t mention any of the three tiers of that system by name, contenting himself with the banality that has characterized his hackneyed approach to politics and government over more than four decades.

Referring to what he called a “rich and diverse system”, Brown, who believes that online education is a panacea for UC’s difficulties, came down firmly against UC’s ambitions to be at the heart of the state’s social development and economic fluorescence, arguing for a leaner, meaner, less ambitious and less excellent institution.

Brown, apparently vying with the tin-eared UC Regents to determine who is more out of touch with reality and less invested in social responsibility, bleated that “affordability and timely completion” should be the priorities of the UC, adding, “I will not make the students of California the default financiers of our colleges and universities.  To meet our goals, everyone has to do their part: the state, the students, and the professors”.  

It’s a bit late for “affordability” where UC is concerned, absent any massive effort by Californians and their government to reinvest in the public sphere.  This is particularly unlikely to occur on Brown’s watch, given his misconception that budgets are tools rather than ends in and of themselves, and his disdain for public spending.  As one UC President recalled, the 1970s version of Jerry Brown joined Ronald Reagan in attacking UC and its mission, and post 2010, the Governor has steadily undermined the integrity of the system, his cuts to its public funding forcing tuition steadily upwards.

Thanks to the actions of Brown and the Republican representatives in the state legislature, who have historically dominated the state thanks to undemocratic supermajority rules, students have long been amongst the foremost financiers of the state’s colleges and universities.  And that has occurred because the state and its citizens have refused to do their part.  State disinvestment and the irresponsible priorities of the UC Regents have forced students and faculty to do more than ever.

And Brown should understand the connection between “affordability” and “timely completion”.  His failure to maintain the former—indeed, his creation of conditions which make affordability more elusive than ever—impedes the ability of students to get through UC in a timely fashion.  Students are working more than ever to support themselves because of high tuition and cost of living, and many are forced to take leaves from the UC to shore up their resources before attempting to complete degrees that their parents or grandparents could have had virtually free of charge, but which today run to more than $30,000 per year including living expenses.

Brown’s “intellectual” credentials go unchallenged by the media and his supporters, but the man is incapable of the most elementary mental honesty which would allow him to see the connections between his Tea Party-esque view of the role of government, and the ills and travails of California’s students and universities.  

Indeed, Brown is in many ways emblematic of the generational war being waged in California and across the country.  Generations of citizens, having benefited from the largesse of a welfare state funded by previous generations—top notch schools, free and excellent universities, generous social safety nets, a vibrant public sphere, etc—are now dismantling that welfare state before future generations can benefit from it as they did.

Students, faculty, and staff at California’s universities, as well as California’s citizenry at large, should resolve to spend this and the coming years combating efforts by Jerry Brown and the state Republican Party to diminish and privatize higher education in a state long known for its preeminence in that field, and for the capacity of institutions of public higher education to transform for the better the lives of its citizens.